Why Keir Starmer’s tuition fees U-turn shows he wants to fight a cost-of-living election

If Keir Starmer has indeed developed one skill during his tenure as Labour leader that is necessary for life in Number 10, it is a knack for knowing when to drop bad news. In a week consisting of council elections followed by a coronation, Starmer will have hoped that his blink-and-you-miss-it U-turn on a previous promise to abolish university tuition fees would fly by undetected by voters. Not least because it did not go unnoticed by Labour’s political opponents, who have already been lining up to take shots at the Leader of the Opposition’s political integrity. Starmer, for now, knows that he has to grin and bare it, because while the country has had their eyes on Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace, this policy one-eighty shows he is looking squarely ahead to the general election in a year’s time.



If there is one thing worth risking everything for in party politics, it is obtaining an image of economic competence, and that is exactly what lies behind Keir Starmer’s tuition fees turnaround. This may be an election due in 2024, but the dominant political issue of the present moment, solving the cost-of-living crisis, looks set to stick around until voters next head to the polls. The Conservatives know it too, for they have brought Labour’s trusted foe out of retirement: not a person, but a thirteen-year old letter, namely the one left by the last Labour chief secretary to the Treasury warning the incoming government that “there is no money” left. Over the last thirteen-years, they have consistently been the party of sound finances, but now the Conservatives are behind Labour on this election-deciding issue and are duly parading this notorious note on the airwaves and on social media once again.



Keir Starmer needs no greater reminder that he has to chuck his Party’s economic skeletons out of the closet now, so that he can present an economically trustworthy vision to the country later. With an estimated cost of over £9 billion, the 2017-era manifesto pledge to abolish tuition fees is the biggest bone Starmer has left to shirk, after already distancing himself from commitments on nationalisation and tax hikes. The Labour Party may have just had local election results that put them on course to win the next election, but Starmer does not want to make the mistake of endorsing an economically illiterate manifesto in the belief that he already has one foot in Number 10. Theresa May has helpfully already demonstrated the danger of pre-election day overconfidence; her so called “Dementia Tax” was met with a backlash that helped to destabilize her crumbling 2017 election campaign. If Keir Starmer is indeed feeling bullish about his chances of becoming Prime Minister at the next general election, than this U-Turn on tuition fees might in fact be more about a desire to make tough economic decisions now, than when in office. For that, he has Nick Clegg to thank. He was the last major party leader to enter government off the back of a promise to wipe away tuition fees, and promptly found himself peer-pressured by the economic reality, and by David Cameron, to renege on that manifesto commitment, and with it help consign his party to near electoral oblivion a few years later. Better to change course while in opposition, with a jam-packed news week as an added incentive, than risk repeating the former Deputy Prime Minister’s fate a decade later.



How the country pays for university education is only one piece in the wider jigsaw puzzle of Labour’s election strategy to move towards centre ground in a bid to win over the confidence of voters. Starmer is not just taking a leaf out of Blair’s 1997 playbook, he is taking the whole tree. The Labour leader’s programme for Britain is strikingly similar to his distant predecessor’s own advance to the political centre: no movement on income taxes, accepting the economic status-quo, tough on crime, a focus on education and even the use of a windfall levy, but this time on energy giants not on privatized utilities. The problem for Keir Starmer is that it is certainly no longer 1997 and the absence of a bold agenda may not necessarily be the polling day-winner it once was. Take Jeremy Corbyn’s own radical tuition-fee abolishing campaign in 2017, it saw him collect more votes than Blair did in two out of his three election wins. Now Starmer has thrown off the shackles of Corbyn’s toxic Party leadership, who is to say a similarly ambitious manifesto would not be even more successful with voters? If Starmer thinks that left-wing policies still cannot win majorities, than he should look no further than 1945; the boldest general election platform of them all saw Attlee send Churchill himself to the opposition benches.



After two previous elections fought on a ‘magic money tree’ and a ‘magic money forest’, both the Conservatives and now Labour are gearing up for a Brexit-free cost-of-living election of mass metaphorical deforestation and a strong dose of financial frugality. It is little surprise, therefore, that Starmer feels the need to reverse course on as expensive a policy as free university education, not least because it is so associated with Corbyn-era economics. The Labour leader is successfully doing what it takes to win over voters on the crucial matter of tax and spend, but Labour strategists will have to wonder: is he doing much more than that? U-turns do not excite the electorate, and neither does trying to cautiously adopt the policies of a government that has been in power for thirteen years. For now, polling suggests economic competence and the unpopularity of the Conservatives might be all it takes to return Labour to power, but if Rishi Sunak is able to move past Liz Truss, the mini-budget, and the cost-of-living crisis, then Starmer will need to do more to stop public opinion making a U-turn of its own.


Featured Image: NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organzation Telegram Military Army News  on Flickr

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